(Reuters) - LeBron James was exhausted and banged-up, but he came through in the clutch as the Cleveland Cavaliers earned a thrilling overtime 114-111 win over the Atlanta Hawks to take a strangle hold of the Eastern Conference finals.
James missed his first 10 shots in the game, but soon found his range and scored 15 points in the third quarter alone.
“Started out the game just out of character, out of rhythm. But I had to make a difference,” James said in an on-court interview.
He appeared to hit the wall in the fourth, missing shots as he favored a tender left ankle, and at one point appearing to consider leaving the game.
The Hawks took advantage to tie the game with just over five minutes left and force overtime.
But James sank a three-pointer in the final minute of overtime just after Jeff Teague had given the Hawks a two-point lead with his own three-pointer.
James then all but put it away with a layup with 13 seconds remaining to widen the lead to three points.
The Hawks’ Shelvin Mack then missed two three-point attempts in the closing seconds.
James finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists, and passed Karl Malone for sixth all-time in playoff scoring.
“Unbelievable. I’ve never seen a stat line like that in a playoff game,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt told reporters.
“(He) cramped up and he knew we could not win the game without him. He played through pain and he played through the cramping and he just wouldn’t let us lose.”
Teague led the Hawks with 30 points and seven assists, helping offset the loss of Al Horford, who committed a flagrant foul in the final minute of the first half and ejected.
Paul Millsap added 22 points for the Hawks and pulled down a team-high nine rebounds.
The win puts the Cavaliers, who were without injured point guard Kyrie Irving for the second successive game due to a knee injury, on the cusp of their second NBA Finals appearance with a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game Four is on Tuesday in Cleveland.
Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Greg Stutchbury